I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading a book many in this industry might turn their nose up to. “Pour Your Heart Into It” is Howard Schultz’s account of how Starbucks grew from a small series of whole bean coffee stores into the mega brand that it is today. Well, I should say the mega brand it was in 1997, before the company hit some rough points in the past decade.
The book has been fascinating for me. I didn’t become familiar with Specialty Coffee until 2003. Most of the history I’ve heard about this industry, Seattle coffee, and Starbucks has been blurry, and everyone I’ve talked to has had their own version. Hearing how things actually started has been enlightening. I really do believe it is important to know where we’ve come from to know where we are going.
That being said, the biggest fact that I’ve taken away from this book is that Third Wave coffee, as it has developed, has not seen anything new.
First of all, Starbucks started with the same dogmatic principles that most of us hold close to today. The only real difference between where many of us stand now and where Starbucks was in the 1970’s is that the founders believed that you had to buy the best green coffee because only high quality green could stand up to a dark roast profile. Now, granted, this is pretty counter to where we are today, but they still stood by grinding fresh and brewing with proper technique… In fact, I was most surprised to find that the reason Schultz even found Starbucks was because he worked in sales for a company that made a manual, pour-over style coffee brewer… And Starbucks was selling an unusually high number of these brewers.
In the books Schultz even talks about how Starbucks didn’t offer anything except whole milk until the early 1990’s. It was the issue of whether to serve nonfat milk that made Starbucks have to question where to draw the line on customer service vs. coffee quality.
At one point, Starbucks had to reevaluate it’s customer service policies. People were becoming too elitist in their customer interactions, steering away many first time customers.
There are many issues brought up in this book that connect directly to trends and issues we’ve encountered in our modern version of Specialty Coffee. Obviously, as Starbucks has grown, customer service has trumped quality. However, it’s interesting to see that a business can grow to 25, 50, or 100 stores and maintain most of it’s fundamental beliefs in coffee.
With talk of growth and expansion, and rumors of mergers, this all makes me even more curious as to where Stumptown Coffee Corp is going… Or what Intelligentsia is building up for. Starbucks laid the groundwork… but what if someone grew a chain as big, but intended to hold Third Wave quality intact. Reading this book has me dreaming and wondering, “Is it possible?”